Sunday alcohol sales growing in Alabama

February 19, 2011 

Voters are turning Alabama’s once-dry Sundays into just another day of the week as business and entertainment interests overshadow opposition to selling and buying alcoholic beverages on the traditional Christian Sabbath.

As of November, 12 counties and five cities in the state have authorized Sunday alcohol sales of some sort, either take-out, on-premises or both. Tuscaloosa could be next. The city’s voters will decide Feb. 22 whether to allow alcohol sales between noon and 9:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tuscaloosa, the seat of wet Tuscaloosa County, is the largest city in the state without Sunday alcohol sales.

It is allowed in Lee County, where Auburn is, and in Houston County, where Dothan is. Both cities are smaller than Tuscaloosa, as are Phenix City and Prattville, which are in wet counties and also permit Sunday sales. In Greene County, Sunday sales are allowed at the Greenetrack entertainment complex.

Alabama tourism experts say that allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sundays is a matter of dollars and cents in a state that sees tourism as an economic engine, not only for the coast, but also for interior areas with marketable attractions.

“Cities with Sunday sales attract more conventions than cities without,” said Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department. “Meeting places are (unable) to attract conventions on weekends that overlap with Sunday if they do not have alcohol sales.”

Voters in Decatur, a wet city in dry Morgan County, approved seven-day alcohol sales last year. The Sunday alcohol vote in April 2010 passed 63 percent to 37 percent.

Tami Reist is president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Her job is to attract tourism business to Decatur that is smack-dab between Sunday-wet Huntsville and Florence.

“I knew we were trying to lure restaurants and one of the first things they said was ‘You don’t have seven-days sales’ and now we have seven-day sales,” she said.

Jim Page is vice president of public policy and business development at the Decatur Chamber of Commerce.

“The chamber has long been a proponent of seven-day sales,” he said. “On many occasions we’d talk to restaurants, particularly national chains, and some expressed a desire to have it, some had it as a requirement and some wouldn’t even consider coming if you didn’t have it.”

He said that since Decatur went wet on Sundays, a new national restaurant announced it will locate there — Olive Garden. “A couple of others, we are in final negotiations,” Page said. He declined to name them. Olive Garden operates a restaurant in Sunday-dry Tuscaloosa, although other factors may have influenced that decision to locate in the city. A factor could be that Tuscaloosa is significantly larger than Decatur. An Olive Garden media contact could not be reached for comment.

Decatur finance supervisor Linda McKinney said sales taxes from Sunday alcohol aren’t broken out so it’s hard to say whether Sunday alcohol purchases have kept diners in town on Sundays to buy meals and a drink or a beer.

She also said that Sunday alcohol sales occurred at a time when the economy wasn’t very good.

“Linking Sunday sales with the economy, all you can do is speculate,” she said.

Reist said she cannot quantify if more conventions have located in Decatur because of Sunday sales. “We haven’t had anything specific,” she said. It takes a while for word to get out and convention groups to schedule their meetings.

The city’s lodging tax collections actually declined from 2009 to 2010, but those years were still caught by the national recession. McKinney said the lodging tax was $790,067 in 2009 and $770,651 in 2010.

The tax is a percentage of the sale price of a room and if room rates decline due to the economy, so would lodging tax collections. Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board figures for Decatur wholesale stores, which sell directly to businesses, since the May 2010 Sunday “wet” vote show sales increases over the corresponding months in 2009 except for October 2010 and January 2011.

ABC attorney Bob Hill said it would be difficult to determine if the sales increased because of the legal availability of alcohol in Decatur on Sundays, but Sunday alcohol sales potentially represent 52 extra sale opportunities for businesses over a year’s time. He said other factors, such as competition and price increases influence the price of ABC products.

Decatur’s Page said the pro-Sunday sales group “understood the moral argument and totally respect it,” but the economic benefits of increased revenue for motels and restaurants and more jobs were pushed. “Most people understood that just because you couldn’t buy it they weren’t drinking,” Page said.

In 2007, the City Council in Sheffield, in already wet Colbert County, approved a city alcohol ordinance to allow on-premise Sunday sales to properly licensed motels and restaurants.

Florence, across the Tennessee River from Sheffield, already had seven-day alcohol sales. Sheffield political and business owners feared an export of dining and entertainment dollars to the larger city, so Sheffield went wet on Sundays. (Legislative approval is usually required in order to go wet or dry.)

Steve Holt, president of the Shoals Chamber of Commerce, said that one of the business benefits of Florence going to seven-day sales was the announcement by a national restaurant chain it would open a store in Florence.

Holt said a major hotel chain wanted a convention center overlooking Wilson Dam, but Florence didn’t have all the pieces in place for complete development. “It was a substantial issue with the Marriott and that’s what probably started the issue,” Holt said.

It’s hard to put a financial finger on the tax impact of Sunday alcohol sales, at least in Florence. The city’s treasurer, Dan Barger, said Sunday alcohol, beer and on-premise meal tax sales aren’t broken out of the overall sales tax. “I can’t accurately say anything is related to Sunday sales,” he said.

In wet counties or cities with legal alcoholic beverage sales, expanding to Sunday is a business decision and not a new license requirement.

To go wet on Sunday, a dry city or county first must go wet and that means getting legislation allowing it and then conducting a vote, if the legislation requires it.

Alabama, once a bastion of prohibition, actually is very wet. In only two of 67 counties, Clay and Randolph, are alcoholic beverages not legally available for sale.

Some “dry” counties such as Blount County have private developments that sell alcohol to a select few. In the 24 “dry” counties, it’s possible to buy alcoholic beverages in at least one or more towns or cities in 22 of them.

Since the possession of certain amounts of alcoholic beverages for personal consumption in any dry county in Alabama is allowed, no Alabama county is truly dry and based on recent votes the state is getting wetter.

Competition and a new law that allows towns in dry counties under 4,000 population to vote wet or dry are partly responsible for serving up wet votes.

Russellville and Sulligent in dry Franklin and Lamar counties, respectively, recently went wet. So did Fayette in dry Fayette County north of Tuscaloosa.

Brent in dry Bibb County voted to go wet, but next-door Centreville stayed dry as did Winfield in dry Marion County. Priceville in Morgan County stayed dry, but Moulton in dry Lawrence County voted wet.

Russellville Mayor Troy Oliver said pro-wet groups used growth as a reason to vote wet last November.

“From what the discussions were, the economic importance was you could attract restaurants that we could not before because it was dry,” Oliver said. “The mayor and City Council didn’t heed this. we stayed out of it, and others did it.”

He’s unsure whether going wet will affect city finances because no licenses have been issued. Sundays remain dry, he said.

While voters didn’t authorize Sunday sales, Cullman voters in dry Cullman County south of Decatur voted in November 52 percent to 48 percent to go wet.

Mary Adams, a retired real estate appraiser, legal field employee and bank president in Cullman, was the spokeswoman for Cullman’s successful wet vote.

“I’ve been working with that for years and I thought this was necessary for economic development of Cullman County,” she said.

The Cullman City Council last week started hearing license applications, a necessary first step for alcoholic beverage sales.

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